'B Positive': TV Review

B Positive Thomas Middleditch and Annaleigh Ashford
Sonja Flemming/CBS
Annaleigh Ashford makes a strong first impression in this ensemble sitcom with room to grow.
11/5/2020

Marco Pennette and Chuck Lorre's new CBS multi-cam showcases Annaleigh Ashford and Thomas Middleditch in a comic organ-transplant tale.

Annaleigh Ashford doesn't deliver her B Positive dialogue so much as she sings it, turning moments of the new CBS sitcom into almost a multi-cam musical focused on Adelaide from Guys and Dolls or some archetypal equivalent. This is only a good thing, because Ashford is, after all, a Tony-winning musical theater star and her gifts with melodic phrasing border on unparalleled (and, as any viewer of Showtime's Masters of Sex knows, Ashford is an adroit dramatic actress as well).

In the two episodes of B Positive sent to critics, I got multiple laughs out of Ashford's delivery of lines from Marco Pennette's scripts, which, while not conspicuous groaners, probably wouldn't have been funny under neutral circumstances. This is a workable formula for an above-average broadcast multi-cam — basically co-creator Chuck Lorre's bread and butter — as B Positive combines inoffensive writing with a cast of impressive depth, giving this bittersweet sitcom room to grow its world in a variety of directions, several of which have real potential.

The series' ostensible star is Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley), playing Drew, a therapist with few social attachments who discovers that he's in need of a kidney transplant and lacks plausible donors. At a wedding, Drew has an unexpected reunion with former high school acquaintance Gina (Ashford), who hastily volunteers to give Drew a kidney, though she may be very, very drunk (or high) at the time. Gina works for a retirement home, driving seniors around to their various medical appointments. While she's quite responsible by day, her less responsible alter ego "Becca" comes out at night, and it's immediately clear that Drew may not be able to count on Gina for that kidney — at least not without taking an active role in keeping her clean and sober until a surgery date.

So what you have in the first episode is a set-up for a reboot of The Odd Couple or possibly Lorre's own Dharma & Greg, pairing uptight and free-spirited protagonists to comic effect. But B Positive almost immediately pivots from star-driven two-hander to backdoor ensemble comedy, something more like Lorre's Mom. In the second episode, we meet Drew's regular dialysis group, featuring the scene-stealing likes of Briga Heelan and David Anthony Higgins, and we start seeing more of Gina's workplace, with Linda Lavin joining as an acerbic senior with a deep investment in Gina's love life. Throw in the likes of Sara Rue as Drew's ex-wife (with Izzy G as his daughter Maddie) and Kether Donahue as Gina's co-worker Leanna, and the series really is a moveable feast of scene-stealing opportunities.

There's a tendency with Lorre-produced shows to begin the pilot in a place of broadness and then settle into more nuanced, character-driven comedy. Perhaps it's the reason his shows are fairly popular, but it may also be the reason why so many quickly dismissive viewers are unaware of how great Mom is capable of being, how solid and likable Young Sheldon is or how low-key charming Bob Hearts Abishola can be.

The first episode of B Positive opts more for almost generic flatness instead of coarse broadness. Easily the best part of that initial half-hour is the title sequence animated in Monty Python-esque fashion by Grand Jete and accompanied by an unnervingly catchy theme song by Lorre and Keb' Mo'.

For its opening act, Pennette ducks out on almost anything resembling specificity. From Drew's medical condition to his symptoms — something about peeing — to his job to his marriage, his entire life is conveyed in a rush of tell-don't-show blandness. Even after two episodes, I'm not sure Drew has been given anything resembling a character I believe exists in the real world (and that's without getting into his mustache). Since Middleditch's brand of squirmy, dry discomfort may already be an acquired taste, this is less than ideal. Say what you will about the actor's performance here — and I'd argue that in a show he toplines, he isn't one of the top six or seven reasons to watch — but he's working hard to give Drew a personality by sheer force of line delivery.

More fun, then, is watching Ashford put her own sing-song stamp on Gina's semi-reformed bimbette exterior, fighting off awkward bits like her introduction pantomiming sex acts mid-wedding (there's that broadness poking through) to give the character an innocent sweetness that's much more appealing. She and Donohue are a great comic pairing, and her interactions with the denizens of the senior center tend to be funny. Middleditch is finally more affable in his dialysis group, where a razor-sharp Heelan, an amiable goofy Higgins and a high-energy Terrence Terrell, playing a former NFL player who needs the group to remember his celebrity, can get chuckles instead.

You know things aren't going to be smooth sailing with Gina and Drew's donor/recipient relationship, what with an initial three-month surgical timetable. I'll be interested to see how well Pennette lines up impediments for them even in a world that, despite a medical backdrop, appears to be COVID-free. B Positive is very much designed to function in a mode similar to Mom, where some episodes can be schtick-y and full of easy punchlines, but the show is still able to shift gears into emotional, borderline dramatic episodes.

The elements are in place for B Positive to do both things and in a fall with basically no new broadcast comedies, I'll happily watch Ashford, Donahue, Lavin and Heelan for a while as Pennette, Lorre and company steer the show in the direction of its intended rhythms and tone.

Cast: Thomas Middleditch, Annaleigh Ashford, Kether Donohue, Sara Rue, Izzy G. and Terrence Terrell

Creator: Marco Pennette

Airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on CBS starting November 5.